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Getting HELP: Special court designed to help mentally ill

POSTED: June 22, 2008 5:02 a.m.
Tom Reed/The Times

Judge Kathlene Gosselin talks with one of the participants of the HELP Court recently.

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It took an armed standoff with police to finally get Ron the help he needed for his depression.

Suicidal and waving a loaded .357 Magnum in a public place, the bankrupt 46-year-old was certain he would be shot by officers.

"I had lost my faith," he said, after losing his home and watching his marriage slide toward failure. "I saw everything disintegrating around me."

Police did not shoot Ron, though he says he "fully expected" to be shot. They talked him into putting the gun down, handcuffed him, and took him to a mental health facility, where he spent six days. Afterward, his thoughts still fixated on suicide, Ron was booked into the Hall County jail on a pair of misdemeanor weapons charges. It was there that he was given the option of applying for entry into Hall County HELP Court, a treatment court for people whose criminal acts are rooted in mental illness.

Nearly a year after entering HELP (an acronym for Health, Empowerment, Linkage and Possibilities), after attending court-ordered counseling, taking two anti-depressant medications daily and being monitored by a case manager who made home visits, Ron stood proudly in the well of a courtroom on the fourth floor of the Hall County courthouse, where Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin presented him with a graduation certificate.

"He came in with major depression and had us all worried," Gosselin told the courtroom, where more than 30 active HELP court participants looked on. "He has worked really hard with lots and lots of problems. He's kept on track the whole time."

Ron's wife, standing by his side at the ceremony, managed to say through tears of joy, "he's a lot better, and I'm very thankful."

Said Ron, "The Lord puts people in our lives to help us get through these things. We are all in this program because we made some poor choices. If we stay on track, we can make correct choices."


"Everyone ... has a lot to deal with"

Hall County HELP Court started in December 2004 as one of four accountability courts in the local judicial system, with the focus on people suffering from mental illnesses.

Many of its participants are referred to the court by detention officers or medical workers at the Hall County jail, followed by a clinical interview conducted by a psychologist to determine a diagnosis.
Those diagnosis have ranged from depression to bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Prosecutors work with defense attorneys to decide which candidates are right for the program. Offenders who have committed serious violent felonies such as sexual assaults, armed robberies or attacks on police officers are denied entry. More often the charges involve disorderly conduct, domestic violence, drugs, shoplifting, DUIs and other misdemeanors.

Like Hall County's drug court, some HELP participants may have their charges dismissed with successful completion of the program, though not all will. Some may see reduced jail sentences. There are no guarantees, though there is the hope of a healthier, more productive life.

Some will come out of the program with vastly different lifestyles, new jobs and new outlooks on life. In other cases, graduates may never be able to hold down a job or even acknowledge their mental illnesses, but just convincing them to take their medication regularly will be regarded as a success.

Like other accountibility courts, the prosecutors, defense attorneys, case managers, treatment providers and judge work as a team in reviewing each case in weekly meetings, determining who has made progress and who has taken a step backward.

In addition to getting treatment and medication through AVITA Community Partners, the local state-affiliated mental health treatment provider, participants must get jobs, if they are able, secure steady living arrangements, and are encouraged to earn General Equivalency Diplomas. Finding meaningful, worthwhile jobs and housing for participants is a huge challenge for people who "live on the margins financially," Gosselin notes.

Like other accountibility courts, the judge can impose sanctions if certain requirements aren't met.
During one recent court session, a woman who missed a doctor's appointment and a group therapy session had to face the judge.
"I have to believe you're not taking this seriously," Gosselin said.

The woman broke into tears, telling the judge, "I'm human. There's a lot on my plate I have to deal with by myself."

"Everyone in the courtroom has a lot to deal with," Gosselin responded. "And while you were in (jail) work-release, you were managing OK."

The judge gave the woman 24 hours in jail. Some get community service, or more time in court. Others have spent days or weeks in jail for not fulfilling their obligations to the court.

Many never will. The graduation rate for HELP court is under 50 percent. Court officials say most drop out or are terminated from the program not because of mental health issues, but because of drug addictions.

More than half the participants are "co-occurring," meaning they struggle daily with drug and mental health problems.

Gosselin hopes HELP's graduation rate will improve after the court recently put co-occurring participants on one treatment track and those with mental health issues only on another.

"I think a lot of people we've lost just couldn't get a handle on their drug problems," she said.


"Not just a job"

Some who come before the judge can hardly hold their heads up or speak during their first day in HELP Court, known as enrollment.

During a recent enrollment session, a young woman was led into court wearing the customary jail attire of jumpsuit, leg chains and shower shoes, took a seat at the defense table and answered the judge's questions tearfully. "We all know you can do this," Gosselin told her.

Later the judge recalled another young woman, this one just 17, who came to the program after a drug arrest, suffering from a severe mood disorder and habitually cutting herself. "You had to almost force her to talk to you the first few months in the program," Gosselin said.

Now, the same young woman is held up as one of the court's successes. Her words of hope are quoted on the back of the HELP graduation program: "I used to hate thinking about the future because I thought that I had nothing to look forward to, but now I know that I have a lot to look forward to," she wrote. "I can be successful in life. I am so glad I have changed. I love the new me."

Ron can remember the turning point for him, while in counseling at AVITA, when he reflected on all the problems he and his wife had endured. "I looked at my depression and realized that no matter what was happening in our lives, we were basically OK," he said. "The structure and support of the HELP system was important as far as keeping me on that track."

Ron has high praise for Gosselin. "Her patience, to me, is just astounding," he said. "She realizes that people are struggling with medical changes and when you're in this state of mind, you're not always the most happy, friendly person."

He also praised his court case workers, who made home visits or checked in by phone to get a feel for how his life was going. "The people in this program really care about the people who are in it," Ron said. "My sense is that this is not just a job for these people, it's a calling."

Rachel Ayers, the clinical case manager for HELP Court, believes it offers community-wide benefits.
"It's so much greater than the one client," Ayers said. "When they get healthier, their family is healthier, their workplace is healthier. It's so far-reaching, the effect that mental fitness can have as opposed to mental illness."

Gosselin said she could point to the statistics that show diverting these offenders from jail saves taxpayer dollars. But in the end, she said, "it's the right thing to do for somebody who's sick.

"All over the country, jails and prisons are dealing with the mentally ill, because we are not dealing with them in other ways," she said. "If it is indeed your mental illness that's causing you to enter the criminal justice system, keeping you in and out of jail instead of getting the treatment you need ... then we should be providing that."



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